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What's Privacy in the Age of Facebook?

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Not long ago, a lot of people on Facebook got outraged over the site's new terms of service. The issue? Facebook appeared to be taking control of user content -- wall posts and photos -- and making it more difficult for people who simply wanted to delete their digital history. More than 100,000 users joined the group Against the New Terms of Service.

Facebook, which seems to run into these problems about as often they offer a new service (anyone remember Beacon?), backtracked. "You own your posts," they assured users and then went about fixing the terms of service.

Biz Stone, the cofounder of Twitter, must have been following all of that because when he recently announced new terms of service for Twitter, he went on to assure everyone that "your tweets belong to you, not to Twitter." Still, people are wondering about the new terms at Twitter and what will happen to their tweets, and whether they might get caught in a new form of online advertising.

Make no mistake, this is all about privacy. Not the old-fashioned parchment scroll, carried by courier on horseback from the castle to the king's army. This is modern-day privacy, about digital identity, the control of personal information, and the brewing battle between what we post and its commercial value.

Modern privacy begins with the understanding that personal information will be widely accessible. That's as true for web 2.0 as it was for the early Internet, and for the telephone. It's a paradox to be sure. Someone once said, "we must protect privacy to ensure the free flow of information." That's exactly right.

Think about the cell phone for a moment. It's a device for transferring personal information and it's all about privacy.

Modern privacy is about what happens to information once it's held by others -- whether it's a government agency, a bank, a cell phone company, or a social network site. We give up personal information all the time, but that doesn't end the discussion over privacy. That's where it begins.

Is the government going to use our data as it is supposed to or is it going to spy on us? Does the bank have good security or do we have to worry about breaches? If I give an email address to a cell phone company, am I going to get spammed? And is that quiz that just told me which European capital city I'm most like really trying to figure out who my friends are?

Of course, there is still some interest in secrecy, as just about any parent who has tried to friend their kids on Facebook knows. In fact, everywhere around us, the digital anthropologists will observe, are the cultural artifacts of privacy -- privacy polices on web sites, privacy settings on social network services, privacy features in web browsers and email. What is the purpose of these techniques? To provide people with some control over the information they disclose to others.

Twenty-five years ago there was an online service, based in San Francisco, called The Well. The precursor to Facebook and Twitter, people on The Well were equally funny, serious, and outrageous. Our names reflected our interests. I was "marcindc".

The folks who ran The Well know that success required respecting modern day privacy. The freedom to disclose is based on the freedom to withhold and the freedom to control. The Well's motto? "You own your own words." Not much has changed.

I smile every time someone says, "Privacy is dead" or the "Facebook generation doesn't care about privacy." If there is one issue that people feel passionately about today, that literally unites everyone who goes online, it is the interest in privacy.

And the battle is just beginning.

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